John Alden Philbrick III, 82, of Bryn Mawr, a retired insurance broker and chairman emeritus of the Free Library of Philadelphia, died of a heart attack Nov. 28 in Wilton, Conn., where he was spending Thanksgiving weekend with family.

Mr. Philbrick was on the Free Library board for 20 years and chairman for 10 years, and he continued to attend meetings and stay involved after retiring in 1989.

"John called the library an essential utility, like water and gas," said Elliot Shelkrot, director of the Free Library from 1987 to 2007. "He could give an extemporaneous speech about the library at a moment's notice and was quite eloquent."

As chairman, Mr. Philbrick oversaw the computerization of catalogs for all branches and the establishment of the library's adult-literacy program. He often testified at City Council hearings when funding to keep library branches open was threatened.

Mr. Philbrick believed libraries were designed to help those with disadvantages improve their lives, son Charles said. He also felt branch libraries had become more important because residents without home computers could use the library's, his son added.

In 1992, Mayor Edward G. Rendell awarded the Philadelphia Bowl to Mr. Philbrick for his service to the library. Also that year, the Free Library dedicated the Philbrick Lending Library on the first floor of the Central Library.

Mr. Philbrick had served on the board of the Ludington Public Library and Information Center in Bryn Mawr since 1991, and for the last 13 years had been president of the board of the Lower Merion Library Foundation. He was a delegate to the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services in 1991.

He was a patron of many local institutions, including the Philadelphia Zoo. He also served on the board of the World Affairs Council. An advocate of stem-cell research, he was a former chairman of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden.

"Being born blind in his left eye, he sought to serve the blind," his son said.

In the 1960s, Mr. Philbrick was director of the former Pennsylvania Working Home for the Blind. He was also past chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Center for the Blind and served on the advisory committee for Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.

Mr. Philbrick grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and graduated from the Pomfret School. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University, where he sang with the Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group. Since 1950, he had sung with the Orpheus Club, a men's glee club in Philadelphia, and was a past president. "John was a true gentleman of the old school in every sense," said the club's secretary, John B. Wright II. "He could easily have stepped out of any Gluyas Williams or Peter Arno society cartoon from the New Yorker of the 1920s or '30s. "He was a lively presence in any Orpheus gathering, full of wit and good humor, but equally quick with an opinion - whether or not requested."

For 30 years, Mr. Philbrick was a partner in the H.C. Knight & Co. insurance brokerage. One of his achievements was restructuring insurance policies for Delaware River Port Authority bridges, his son said. He was later president of Assurex International and retired as vice chairman of Posse-Walsh Inc. in Blue Bell in 1998.

He was devoted to his wife, Marion Broadbent Philbrick, during her three-year illness, their son said. The couple were married for 54 years before her death in August.

Mr. Philbrick was a member of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a society of wine connoisseurs. He was a gourmet chef, and was looking forward to cooking for his family on its vacation in the Adirondacks this summer, his son said. He said his father's oft-voiced motto was "to meet life's challenges with a fierce joy."

Mr. Philbrick is also survived by sons John IV and Joseph; a daughter, Ann Matthews; and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, 625 Montgomery Ave.

Memorial donations may be made to the Friends of the Free Library for the Philbrick Lending Library, 1901 Vine St., Philadelphia 19103.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.